How to help your child overcome shyness

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It would be great if every kid were outgoing and poised, but many children are just naturally shy. How do you coax them out of their shells? Here's great advice from Good Morning America Parenting Contributor and author Ann Pleshette Murphy on helping your child overcome shyness.

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  • Ann Pleshette

    Ann Pleshette Parenting Contributor, Good Morning America, ABC Ann Pleshette Murphy has been the Parenting Contributor for Good Morning America since November 1998, and her “American Family” segments are a recurring feature on GMA. Murphy is the author of The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind (Anchor Books) and travels the country speaking to mothers’ groups about such themes as striking a balance between work and family, wrestling with guilt and setting loving limits. She was Editor-in-Chief of Parents magazine from 19 more about this expert »

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How to help your child overcome shyness

Shyness is genetic

  • Shyness in young children has a large genetic component.
  • But while they may be born shy, they won't necessarily stay that way. Some kids overcome shyness on their own with age and socializing.

Overcoming shyness

  • Some young children need preparation. If your child is invited to a birthday party, call ahead and ask if you can stop by in advance so she can see the house and meet the people there.
  • Don’t say, “Oh, he’s shy” in front of your child. Don’t speak for your child.
  • Role-playing can help them get over anxiety about new situations and understand the way they’re perceived by others.
  • Shy kids feel feel very anxious when they are in a new social situation. Encouraging your child to make new friends and meet people can go a long way toward overcoming shyness.
  • Teach your child how to meet people, look them in the eye and shake hands, responding in an outgoing way.
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DENISE: Hi there, I’m Denise Richardson from howdini.com. We’re talking about shyness and how to get your child to be more sociable and more outgoing. Our guest today is the author of The 7 Stages of Motherhood, Ann Pleshette Murphy. Thank you so much for being with us.

ANN: It’s great to be here.

DENISE: Are you born shy and it continues, or do you become shy?

ANN: You are born shy; there is a lot of evidence that shows that shyness has a very big genetic component. So absolutely recognize that sometimes your child who is shy, this is his or her temperament, and it’s very important to respect that.

DENISE: But there are degrees of shy.

ANN: Yes.

DENISE: There’s pain – right up to shy, to painfully shy.

ANN: Yes, yes and, and, you know, the thing to absolutely can count on is that this will evolve. In not that, even in a child who’s painfully shy may be very social by the time they hit their teen years. It doesn’t, you know, necessarily become a defining trait throughout life. However, you know, there are a lot of problems that parents have when they are not shy. I think that one of the things that happens with shyness between the fit, between the parent and child becomes very critical. If you are a really outgoing parent and you have a painfully shy child that is going to be a real challenge for you.

DENISE: If you take a child to a party, take a child to the first day of school, and they’re, they don’t want to leave your side –

ANN: Yeah.

DENISE: I mean, everybody can kind of relate to that.

ANN: Yeah.

DENISE: But what happens, how do you make that work in a healthy way?

ANN: Well I think that most kids who are shy need a lot of preparation. So if it’s even going to a birthday party, you can call the parent and say, you know, sometimes my child needs some time to warm up; I wonder if he can drop by to see your house and meet you ahead of time? You can do the same thing if you’re going to the doctor’s office or certainly going to school. I mean, most schools will have the kids come, and they faze the kids in very gradually for just this reason. It’s a very big transition; even for an outgoing kid it can a challenge. So for shy kids, they need a lot of preparation. They don’t need to be reminded all the time that they’re shy. You know when you meet somebody; try not to say oh, he’s shy, Sorry, my daughter’s shy, and label it in kind of a negative way.

DENISE: Don’t apologize for your child.

ANN: No; and in fact, don’t talk for your child, I think that’s the other thing.

DENISE: In school when you’re making friends and you’re shy, that’s really difficult for a child.

ANN: It is, and this is where parents can help them by doing some role-playing. It’s important to show your child some ways that they can break the ice, that they can say things to kids that kids may want to hear. You can also reverse the roles, and you’re the shy child, so they get to see what it’s like from the other person’s point of view. My daughter didn’t realize that sometimes shyness, particularly as she got a little bit older, could be misinterpreted as snottiness or, not meanness, but you know, kind of an aloofness that she really didn’t mean to project

DENISE: So, so even anxiety plays a role in here, because other parents will say oh, that’s just separation anxiety.

ANN: Yeah, well you know, that’s a very good point. Shyness is anxiety; in other words, we all experience this, you know, fight or flight response when we’re anxious. Kids who are shy, it’s a much more hair-trigger thing, but they are feeling enormous anxiety when they’re in a new social situation. So again, that’s when respecting what they’re feeling, saying I know it’s hard sometimes for you to meet new kids but I know you can do it. Really encouraging them, you know, I think is very important.

DENISE: So how do you get that teenager to step out of the shyness so that his life feels better?

ANN: Well I think that, you know, there is a virtual circle that happens here that you know, when they find that, when they put their hand out and give someone a firm handshake and look them in the eye, you know, just a little step like that, that the response of the other person is, of course, much more positive than when they look at the ground and they don’t say anything and they mumble their name. So, you know, a lot of kids will find as they get older that, you know, there are a lot of benefits to responding in a, you know, open, open, outgoing way. That said, I think for younger kids, you know, providing those opportunities, again, rehearsing, teaching them how to shake hands and look somebody in the eye, can go a long way to, again, helping them take these kind of baby steps towards opening up.

DENISE: Thank you so much, Ann Pleshette Murphy.

ANN: You’re welcome.

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